have your first SLR. Congratulations! Now comes the
hard - and important - part: lenses. In these days of
digital, your camera likely came with an 18-55 or 18-70
lens as part of the kit. Maybe the salesperson showed you that light, little
lens that offers a whopping 18-200 or 28-300mm of coverage.
Excited by the choices, you've browsed over to your
favorite online retailer to see what other options you had, and.... holy mackerel! The
range, the prices and ohmigod, THE PRICES! Why does
a prime (i.e., fixed focal length) 300mm lens sell for
$3,500 when you can get a 28-300mm zoom for only $200?
What's good? What's crap? What should someone get to
start out with?
Well, read on for more info.
About focal lengths
Let's begin with a standard lens.
In the old days, this used to be a 50mm prime lens -
this provided a perspective that was similar to that seen by the human eye. A focal length less than this was called a wide angle - it provided a broad, sweeping vista. Focal lengths more than this were telephotos - they magnified the image and brought distant subjects closer.
With the advent of modern AF cameras and improvements in the quality of zooms, the 50mm lens was replaced by a 28-80 or 28-105mm lens. This was a very useful focal length - it had a good mix of wideangle and short telephoto, allowing the photographer to shoot a wide range of subjects.
With today's DSLRs, there is a complication. Odds are good that the DSLR you bought uses a smaller sensor than film. So it only captures the central portion of the image projected by the lens. As such, it captures a smaller angle of view than what is projected by the lens. In terms of effect, the focal length of the lens appears magnified by 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon).
All recommendations in this section are based on this crop-factor. If you have a full-frame camera (ie, it has the same size sensor as film), then multiply the lens focal lengths by 1.5 or 1.6
What focal length do you need to start with?
The Kit Lens: The most useful focal length for someone starting out is the range of the kit lens that comes with the camera - 17-18mm on the wide end and going up to 55-85mm on the long end.
As we discussed earlier, this focal length is
the most useful for general photography, and covers
a wide range of shooting situations - landscapes, portraits,
buildings and architecture, street and more. Because
of the importance of this lens, it well worth investing
in a high-quality lens covering this focal range.
A Wide-Angle: If you do landscapes, indoor photography
or buildings, you'll find that the angle of view provided by a 17mm lens on a crop body is is
often not wide enough. In that case, you need an ultra-wideangle
lens. These cover a very wide angle of view (so put
away those clown shoes), allowing you to fit into the
image a grand landscape, the entire palace or a large
group of people indoors. Very dramatic results are possible
with ultra-wideangles; however, it needs skill and practice
in order to be able to use a wideangle effectively:
only some scenes benefit from ultra-wideangle treatment.
I am a "wideangle" sort of person, in the
sense that I naturally relate to compositions that lend
themselves to super-wide treatment. Even then, I find
that I rarely go wider than 24mm [in old film terms - corresponding to 15mm with DSLRs] when shooting.
As an aside, keep in mind one thing
- when it comes to wideangles, every wider mm of focal
length makes a significant difference in the field of
view (ie, what is captured by your sensor or film). So there is a big difference between a 15mm lens and the 17 or 18mm on the zoom that you have.
A good lens to buy at this stage is a 12-24mm zoom.
There are also new lenses now starting at 14mm and going up to 50mm or so, which actually combine all the benefits of a standard zoom and a wideangle in a single lens. As a single-lens solution, these are quite promising and it is worth researching the quality of the optics before making a purchase.
A Telephoto: More so than ultra-wideangles, most
people find that their most immediate need after a standard
zoom is to get a telephoto - something that lets them
get closer to their subject. A short telephoto, starting
at 70-100mm on the wide end and going up to 200 or 300mm
on the long end is a perfect complement to the standard
zoom and a very versatile lens - it lets you shoot landscapes,
portrait, candids, details, animals and more. No wonder
that there is a plethora of offerings in this range,
starting from $200 to $2000.
The above 2-3 lenses will cover the above
ranges will cover pretty much most photo opportunities,
with the exception of wildlife (see my article on "Equipment
f or wildlife photography" if that's your main
However, there is more to this than merely
focal length. You will need to consider a few more issues
How fast is your lens?
Mine goes from 0 to 100 in 5.5 seco--
oh wait, not that kind of fast. Not that other kind
of fast either (lens-swapping, anyone?).
Speed, in a lens, refers to how much
light it lets in. This is a reference to its maximum
aperture. Lenses usually come in a notation that looks
something like this: 28-105/3.5-4.5. This means that
the maximum aperture of the lens at 28mm is 3.5 (sometimes
written as f3.5), and at 105mm, it is 4.5 (or f4.5).
A detailed explanation of apertures is outside the scope
of this article - I refer you to the excellent online
tutorial at photo.net
as a good place to start. However, what you need to
know is that a bigger aperture lets in more light -
this allows you to use a faster shutter speed, which
comes handy when you are trying to capture a moving
object, or shoot in dim light. A bigger aperture also
allows you greater control over depth of field - in
other words, you can get the sort of shots where the
subject is sharp and stands out prominently against
a blurred background. For a bunch of reasons, the smaller
the aperture number, the bigger the actual aperture.
So f3.5 is a bigger aperture than f4.5. Lenses with
larger maximum apertures are called fast lenses. Thus,
a f/2.8 lens is faster than an f/4 lens.
With lenses, bigger apertures generally
come at a greater cost. Sometimes, this cost can run
up to several thousands of dollars. For example, a 50/1.4
lens costs around $250, while a 50/1.8 lens, which is
only marginally slower, sells for around $70. A Canon
300/4 lens sells for around $1000, while their 300/2.8
lens goes for almost $3500!
Faster lenses, especially zooms with
fixed maximum apertures throughout their range (eg,
70-200/4 or 24-70/2.8) also tend to be of significantly
higher quality than variable aperture zooms - and also
heavier and more expensive. However, the differences
diminish substantially once you go down a few stops
- so a 28-105/3.5-4.5 lens is going to be very hard
to differentiate from a 28-105/4 lens, costing 5 times
as much, at f8 or smaller.
Whether or not this incremental performance
is worth the extra dollars for you is not something
I, or anyone else can say. I certainly have seen spectacular
shots taken with consumer zooms; at the same time,
most professionals tend to use fast, fixed-aperture
zooms. So there are good arguments to be made for either
Zooms verus Primes
Let's clear up some misconceptions
about zooms: in olden days, zooms were consistently
crap... and a lot of today's perceptions of zooms are
still affected by those days. Modern technology - in
both design and manufacturing - has come a long way.
A top-of-the-line pro zoom will get you very, very close
- or equal - to the performance as a set of primes,
albeit at a price.
At the entry-level, however, the old
truism still holds true. A $200 prime is going to be
superior to a $200 zoom lens - either in terms of quality,
or speed, or both. If you shoot mostly at lower apertures,
then this gap is a lot less. However, if you shoot wide-open
(either due to low light or to blur the background),
then a prime will certainly you better quality: more
sharpness, more contrast, less flare.
Depending on your needs, you may find
it worthwhile to consider trying out prime lenses. A
50/1.8 prime lens only costs $70 or so, and gives you
a taste of the quality that the 35mm medium is capable
of as well as what it feels like to photograph with
prime lenses. Whether or not you think this improvement
is significant or worth the trouble of pursuing remains
up to you, but at least you are now in a position to
make an informed decision for yourself.
Personally, I rarely use primes for
general photography - my zooms give me excellent sharpness,
detail and contrast and are more than adequate for my
Third Party Lenses
One question that used to stir up
a lot of emotion is the issue of buying third-party
lenses - lenses made by Sigma, Tamron and Tokina. Some
people used to think that if it didn't carry a Canon,
Nikon, Pentax or Minolta tag, it was crap. Other people
swore that these lenses offered similar performance
to Big Four lenses, but at cheaper prices.
These days, this debate seems to be
dying down, thankfully. Sigma, Tokina and Tamron - the
big 3 third-party lens makers - seem to have gotten
over their teething and quality control problems and
are making very innovative, high-quality lenses at prices
that are significantly lower than Canon and Nikon's
- and without sacrificing any significant image quality. Third
party lenses are now a viable alternative, provided
you choose carefully (emphasis on the last part, which
also holds true for lenses made by Canon, Nikon and
the rest). However, where Canon and Nikon still hold an edge is in autofocus performance & build quality.
Ignore the reports you hear on the
Internet about the so-called sample variations. In my
very biased and subjective opinion, quite a lot of the
stories about sample variations came about as an easy
way for people to agree to disagree, and over time,
this idea has acquired a life of its own. I am sure
there are a few cases of misaligned lenses out there,
but it is by no means in the volume that the Internet
would have us believe. An example - I bought a Sigma
10-20mm lens, which many people claim suffers from softness
on one side. I took a few shots, looked at them at 100%
and sure enough - they appeared soft on the left side.
However, to double-check, I decided to be more rigorous
- I taped a newspaper on the wall to ensure everything
was in the same plane and took the shot again - and
what do you know? Everything was crisply focused.
My suggestion is - do your research
and don't get caught up in brand marketing. If you need
emotional peace of mind, get a Canon and Nikon. If you
want to maximize the value of your dollar, investigate
the third party alternatives - there are some real steals
Do note that older Sigma lenses used
to have problems with newer Canon bodies - Sigma re-chips
the lens once free of charge, but after that, you have
to pay. Whether this is an issue for you or not depends
on how often you upgrade bodies and how easy it is for
you to get the lens chip upgraded. Of late, it appears
that Sigma has reached some agreement with Canon, because
I have not heard of any recent incidents involving compatibility
If you foresee yourself upgrading
your lenses every so often, keep in mind that third
party lenses - especially zooms - tend to depreciate
more than the manufacturer brands, although the better-reputed
lenses hold their value much better. Balance this against
the substantial cost savings at the time of purchase.
My personal belief is that the up-front savings more
than compensates for the extra depreciation (if any).
A highly popular lens these days is
the 18-200 or 28-300 zoom costing $200-$300. Generally
speaking, 10x zooms are not known for their optical
quality (exceptions: Canon's new 28-300L
IS , Sigma's 50-500 and Nikon's 18-200VR, but they are significantly more
expensive than the budget 28-300 zooms).
Whether or not you should buy these
lenses depends on your needs. If you are traveling and
need a light lens that can do everything - go for it.
If you don't take very large prints, go for it. If you
are on a tight budget, go for it. On the other hand,
if you can break this range up into 2 or more lenses,
you will probably get better optical quality or save some money.
The following are some lenses that
I recommend and which are, in the grand scheme of things,
very reasonably priced as well. By default, they are
slanted towrds Canon, a that is the system I am most
familiar with. However, it does not by any means imply
a particular endorsement for Canon over Nikon - Nikon
has a very high-quality system as well.
- Ultra wideangles: Sigma 10-20/4.5-5.6, Canon 10-22,
- Standard zooms: Tamron 17-50/2.8, Sigma 18-50/2.8,
Sigma 17-70/2.8-4, Canon 18-55/2.8IS, Canon 17-40/4L
- Telephotos: Sigma 50-150/2.8, Canon 50-250IS, Canon 70-300IS
These are by no means exhaustive,
and I have not tested every single one of them (although
I own some of them). But these are the lenses that generally
do get the most recommendations on Usenet and seem to
offer the best value for money. I have listed only Canon above because that is the brand I am familiar with, but Nikon also has a corresponding range of lenses.
Putting it all together
One trap that a lot of people - myself
included - fall into is obsessing about gear (or "measurbating").
Measurbators can be recognized on forums espousing the
virtues of the megabuck lenses and sneering at anything
that falls short - and typically, these are the people
with either no photos in their portfolio, or boring
snapshots of their cat or backyard. I actually read
an article on a popular web forum where one person was
talking about the differences between two iconic lenses
when viewed under a microscope!!!
Given this, it is easy to start believing
that you need pricey lenses to take good photos. Don't
buy into that thinking. I have sold images taken with
my 28-105/3.5-4.5 and the older 75-300/4-5.6 IS lenses,
and I've taken absolutely terrible photos with my 500/4L
When I have displayed my images, I
seldom have had people stick their noses to within 6
inches of the print and go "hmm, the image is lacking
a little in critical sharpness - did you not use an
L lens"? Almost always, the subject and the composition
are what get discussed. If the image is powerful, my
lens choice has never come up; on the other hand, if
the image was weak, not even the most amazing contrast
and sharpness has ever redeemed it.
That does not mean that you can get
the same results with an el-cheapo zoom as you would
with a high-end lens. There is a reason people buy expensive
lenses: larger apertures give you the ability to shoot
in lower light or to blur backgrounds (great for portraits
or to make the subject pop out). Better quality glass
also does give you sharper images - great for enlargements
or for when you have to crop the image.
I don't rush out and buy the most
expensive lens out there - I try out various lenses
and compare the results to my existing kit. If there
is a noticeable improvement in results - in other words,
if my glass and not my abilities are now the limiting
factor - then and only then do I upgrade - if not, I
stay with what I have. What I save in lens cost can
be spent on film, travel or beer (or all three!).
So what does this mean for you? Well,
after reading this article, you should now have an idea
of what your options are. If budget is not a constraint,
by all means feel free to invest in what lenses appeal
to you the most.
However, if budget is an issue, hold
off on dumping your kit lens and spending lots of money
on the lenses listed above. Spend some time shooting
with that kit lens. It isn't as bad as the Internet
would have you believe. And as you shoot and get to
know your needs, you can then decide what it is that
you need the most. Do you need a faster aperture for
lower-light shooting? Do you need a wider lens? A longer
lens? Ability to make sharp poster-sized prints? Once
you know what factors are important to you, you can
then base your purchase on your specific needs.